Confronting the tricky challenge of decarbonising the housing sector

Mark Davis, partnerships and communications director at Public Sector Plc (PSP) discusses the challenges facing the housing sector for both new build and existing stock.

Climate change is today’s most significant environmental challenge. But creating a sustainable and efficient framework to reduce carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions requires both sweeping change and incremental steps from every sector and every industry.  At this point, ‘decarbonisation’ is no longer just a buzzword to be ignored. Full decarbonisation is the only solution to stabilise our climate. 

CO2 is the most prevalent contributor to global warming. Yet, a wide range of sectors — from residential to commercial and industrial — continue to run primarily on fossil fuels, contributing significantly to carbon emissions.  

 Around 26 per cent of UK greenhouse emissions are estimated to come from housing, with the built environment making up 40 per cent of the UK’s total carbon footprint.  Current construction methods contribute significantly to carbon emissions. Concrete alone is responsible for eight per cent of global carbon emissions (if it were a country, it would be the third-largest emitter of carbon after the US and China, releasing 2.8 billion tonnes of carbon every year).  Decarbonising the housing sector needs to happen — and it needs to happen fast.

The UK government wants all new homes to have at least a C-band Energy Performance Certificate (EPC) by 2035.  However, cost, policy uncertainty and the logistics of delivering at both scale and pace (the government has set a target of building 300,000 new homes a year in England) create a complex landscape for councils and housing associations that makes the 2035 target unachievable.     

To hit these targets and build not only better and more sustainable new homes but also affordable homes, we need to look to modern methods of construction (such as offsite modular construction). 

One of the most energy-efficient housing schemes in the UK— a zero-carbon housing development of six family homes — was built in a factory in Cambridge using offsite manufacturing methods. These zero-carbon homes achieve carbon neutrality thanks to technology such as photovoltaic solar roof panels, air source heat pumps and well-insulated air-tight walls. Unlike traditionally built homes that require more energy to heat, electric modular homes can generate more energy than they consume, cutting the monthly energy bill for a three-bedroom family home down to as little as £40 per month.

These modern construction methods provide a unique and innovative solution that can be replicated for future housing projects by local councils and housing associations. Crucially, this construction approach also demonstrates measurable benefits, such as speed of delivery, material savings and embodied carbon — essential factors as the housing sector focuses on construction impacts and building a zero-carbon future.   

As well as building better new homes, improving the energy efficiency of existing housing stock is also a crucial step toward decarbonisation.  Housing efficiency is one of the major ways to reduce carbon. With a broad spectrum of methods to sustainably retrofit domestic properties, including solar panels, smart meters and sustainable water systems, councils and housing associations can increase their chance of meeting decarbonisation targets whilst simultaneously helping to reduce fuel poverty and create healthier homes. 

Local council and housing associations have a vital part to play in the government’s decarbonisation targets — and they are eager to deliver, supporting the wider housing and built environment sector in the global issue of climate change. 

By pooling resources with consultancy partners to access funding and maximise procurement potential, these sectors will have the opportunity to contribute to the decarbonisation of homes across the country — developing a new generation of low-carbon homes that offer a win-win for local authorities, taxpayers, local residents and, ultimately, the environment. 

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